John Keats wrote “The Eve of St. Agnes” in January and February of 1819, the first of an astonishing spate of masterpieces that came one after another, despite his failing health and emotional turmoil. “La Belle Dame Sans Merci,” “Lamia,” and six great odes were all written before October of that year. The circumstance of his death shortly afterward seems to throw into a kind of relief the luscious descriptions of physical beauty in this and other poems. More striking still is the poet’s refusal to take comfort in the simplistic assurances of any religious or philosophical system that denied either the complexity of mind or the reality and importance of sense. “The Eve of St. Agnes” manifests Keats’s characteristic concern with the opposition and subtle connection of the sensual world to the interior life. He shared this preoccupation with other Romantic poets, notably Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, taking as his subject the web of an antithesis at the heart of human experience; like them, he cloaked his meditations in sensuous imagery.
In this and other ways, Keats and all the Romantics abandoned the poetic theory of the century before. Eighteenth century poetry was formal, didactic, and objective in stance. Its chief aim was to show to humanity a picture of itself for its own improvement and edification. Its chief ornament was wit: puns, wordplay, satiric description, and so forth. In short, what eighteenth century poets saw as virtue in poetry was logic and rigid metrics. Nineteenth century poets wrote from a radically different philosophical base, due in part to the cataclysmic political changes surrounding the American and French Revolutions. Before these upheavals occurred, a belief in order and in measure extended into all facets of life, from social relations to literature; extremes were shunned in all things as unnatural, dangerous, and perhaps blasphemous.
After 1789, when the social order in France turned upside down, an expectation of the millennium arose in England, especially in liberal intellectual circles; the old rules of poetry were thrown off with the outworn social strictures, and a new aesthetic bloomed in their place. Its ruling faculty was imagination. The world seemed made new, and poetry released from bondage. Romantic poets frequently stated that poems ought to be composed on the inspiration of the moment, thereby faithfully to record the purity of the emotion. In fact, Keats and...
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